Monday, 07 November 2011 11:16
Louisiana Needs Less Politicization Over Stimulus Broadband Grant
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Louisiana CapitolWhile perhaps the request by Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell does not really fit the mission of his governmental body, it does provide an opportunity to help chart a course to salvage a federal government grant awarded to the state, now revoked, by avoiding politicization of the issue.
Campbell asked that at the Nov. 9 meeting of the PSC it discuss the matter, even though the regulatory purview of the PSC makes it questionable whether it has any legal input at all regarding the issue of build out of telecommunications infrastructure by the public sector before it operates. It concerns a statement from Washington that the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s grant office has told the state it had serious reservations about whether the state could come up with a plan it deems workable for a Broadband Technology Opportunities Programgrant by its deadline.
The BTOP program, created by the initial Pres. Barack Obamaspending bill known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, funds in three areas, two of which Louisiana pursued:
projects that deliver broadband service to “underserved or unserved populations,” and projects that expand the capacity of computer centers accessible to the public, such as community colleges or public libraries. The Board of Regents was made the primary agency responsible to pursue the matter when it started two years ago, under its former commissioner of higher education.
The Regents were chosen because the state’s program was to build off of the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative already existing in north Louisiana that connects universities. It would extend it into southern Louisiana as far west as the Texas border and as far east as to the outskirts of Baton Rouge. But the state contends that the contractor given responsibility for getting the infrastructure ready, Gulf Engineers and Consultants, fell way behind schedule, which the firm argued in part was through lack of cooperation by some federal agencies and that the project by its nature was too big for the timeframe involved.
In response, the state shifted strategies during the first part of the year, culminating in a September request, after the Division of Administration stepped in for damage control, to operate a dark fiber indefeasible rights-of-use approach to construction. In essence, the state was desiring to buy a portion of existing private sector fiber optic cabling, committing it also to periodic maintenance payments. This approach the federal government’s National Telecommunications and Infrastructure Administration found wanting in that not enough details would be released and not soon enough to assure program objectives would be met in a timely fashion.
To summarize, the state was unable to get a project of this size moving fast enough, the matter becoming more complicated when, under its new plan, it would have to cede control of certain actions to the private sector that made assessment of whether federal government goals would be met even more difficult to ascertain. This struggle – where states have a set of goals in mind while the federal government’s may differ – is not uncommon in dealing with grant relationships, because these goals relate to politics.

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But the main and nonpolitical goal that should be shared by both is to get the project accomplished that would increase access to community/government institutions and potentially to users in areas deemed un-served or underserved. Here, politics has reared its head when Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu inserted herself into the issue in a most negative way, a week after the state got notice that the grant, where almost all of its spending at this point had come from the state’s required 20 percent match, had gotten terminated, by blaming the state’s leadership, headed up by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, for its end.
Having higher education’s telecommunications agency may not have been the best choice to direct things, which may have been decided because of the original idea of building off LONI. The contractor also may have been at fault, an impossible claim to resolve without knowing whether its complaint that the project was too large for the timeline is valid. Yet Landrieu’s ranting does nothing to salvage or to advance matters.
Again, if the goal is to complete the project hampered by time concerns, that can be accomplished only if political agendas are put aside. The state argues that the federal government’s micromanaging on details simply not yet available under the revised plan compelled by the deadline otherwise sabotages a project that would work. Such an emphasis on the deadline likely comes from the fact that, the grant being part of ARRA, reporting includes “jobs creation” by government, the paucity and enormous expense of which has shown ARRA to be a colossal failure and record waste of money. This reality is not good for Obama’s reelection chances, so his executive branch needs these grants to show “job creation” results by government and hence the strict adherence to the deadline, which would have reporting of this statistic prior to the election.

The question then for policy-makers is whether accomplishing the project’s specific goals is more important than having government heavily involved in it and taking credit for “job creation” by a certain date. Instead of railing about it, Landrieu certainly could help here by working with the Obama Administration to extend the deadline and to relax reporting requirements that would provide disincentives for private sector participation, or to rally legislation as such to pass. Hopefully, Campbell’s PSC request will emerge as a serious effort to achieve project goals and not disintegrate into politicization of the issue that loses focus on the question posed above.

by Jeffrey Sadow...visit his blog, Between The Lines 

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Jeffrey Sadow

Jeffrey Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University in Shreveport.   He writes a daily conservative blog called Between The Lines

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